Welcome to Sarajevo

17 Mar

R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 01/08/1998, B: Tom Meek,

Bosnia calling

Michael Winterbottom’s scathing Sarajevo

by Tom Meek

WELCOME TO SARAJEVO, Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on the novel Natasha’s Story, by Michael Nicholson. With Stephen Dillane, Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, Emira Nusevic, Kerry Fox, Goran Visnjic, Emily Lloyd, and James Nesbitt. A Miramax Pictures release. At the Kendall Square.

Michael Winterbottom is perhaps the most-talented, least-known filmmaker of the moment. His fledgling accomplishments — Butterfly Kiss, the tangy road movie about two lesbian serial killers, and Jude, featuring the red-hot Kate Winslet in an idiosyncratic updating of the quintessential Thomas Hardy novel — demonstrated the British director’s knack for visual storytelling. But neither film would serve as an appropriate yardstick for what Winterbottom has achieved with Welcome to Sarajevo, the first cinematic rendering of the Bosnian conflict.

Based upon British war correspondent Michael Nicholson’s novel Natasha’s Story, and piquantly peppered with other journalistic reports from the front line, Welcome to Sarajevo is a blistering docudrama, as refreshing as it is horrifying. Told through the eyes of Western journalists, the film doesn’t concern itself with the nebulous details of the Bosnian Serbs’ terrorist assault on the city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics; instead it’s a simple, eloquent, chronicle of Sarajevans’ daily struggle to survive. Winterbottom sets the film’s stark tone in the unassuming opening sequence as his camera follows the ceremonial preparations of a bride and her wedding party. The pageant frolics along, carefree and unconcerned, until the rip of a sniper’s bullet terminates the moment of jubilation and ushers in the shocking reality of civil war. 

As Michael Henderson, the Nicholson figure, British stage actor Stephen Dillane strikes a majestic portrait of a man caught between his professional objectivity and human compassion. A veteran reporter of 25 years and 15 wars, Henderson comes to Sarajevo to make his mark on the “six o’clock news” by hustling for the most sensational story of the day. Squatting in minimal accommodations, separated from his family and in constant danger, he finds his toil ringing hollow when producers back home in England play down the significance of his reports and the gravity of the city’s strife. At one point Henderson’s coverage of a civilian bread-line bombing loses broadcast priority to a gossip piece about Prince Andrew and Fergie. And in another, more comical barb at Western complacency, a news correspondent jests about the UN’s recent declaration that Sarajevo is only the “14th most dangerous place on earth.”

What’s more, Henderson finds himself increasingly drawn to the anguish of his subjects. After a visit to a ramshackle orphanage on the front line, where emaciated children barely survive under the constant threat of mortar fire, he promises the children that he’ll bring their plight to the world by mounting a tenacious media campaign and urging the international community to extricate them. And when — no surprise — his efforts prove ineffectual, he decides to fulfill his promise directly, undertaking a risky plan to smuggle a nine-year-old girl out of the country.

Similar in dimension to The Year of Living Dangerously and The Killing Fields,Welcome to Sarajevo revolves around an eclectic and lively assortment of war-weary journalists. The most electrifying is Flynn (Woody Harrelson in a dead-perfect supporting role), a maverick American journalist who’s a dicy combination of profiteer, hotshot, and humanitarian. Flynn bursts onto the streets of Sarajevo with the macho irreverence of a Hollywood bad boy as he defies sniper fire to aid a downed civilian. Counterpointing the solemn, resolute Henderson, Flynn’s offbeat rogue conveys the film’s bleak vein of black humor. As Henderson’s Sarajevan driver, Goran Visnjic creates an engaging, charismatic presence. Kerry Fox and Emily Lloyd add delightful touches as Henderson’s producer and a wide-eyed freelancer, respectively; Marisa Tomei, however, is largely bland as an American volunteer who assists Henderson in his perilous quest.

Both Dillane and Harrelson deserve Oscar consideration, though the true genius behind Welcome to Sarajevo is Winterbottom. Combining gritty war re-enactments, actual newsreel footage, and emotionally charged drama, he’s crafted a chaotic digest that weaves through sniper fire and the burnt-out alleyways of a war-torn city with all the vigor of Salvador or Under Fire. The result is crisp, brutal, and utterly inspirational.

Once was Yugoslavia

British director Michael Winterbottom sat sock-footed and relaxed as he readied himself to screen his ambitious Welcome to Sarajevo at this past September’s Boston Film Festival. Certainly, I figured, the comforts of a first-class hotel in Boston must seem worlds away from the war torn ravages of Sarajevo.

“Not really,” the unassuming auteur insisted. “For me, going to Sarajevo was not that dissimilar from being in London, New York, or Boston. People listen to the same music. It’s a big university town. It’s a very modern, sophisticated European city.”

Winterbottom’s saga details the outset of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serbs through the eyes of a British journalist (Stephen Dillane) who sheds his professional agenda and becomes involved in the lives of the very people he is there to observe. “Journalists are people who see things,” the director points out. “They are all there trying to get the story. But a lot of British journalists came back very committed to Sarajevo, emotionally involved in the story, like [Michael] Nicholson [the journalist, whose chronicles the movie is loosely based on], and many of them campaigned for the government to do something about it.”

Winterbottom opines that even though reporters worked arduously to relay news of the heinous war crimes around the globe, the West was slow, almost complacent, in reacting. “During the war, many of the people in Britain viewed it as the Balkans, where all these weird people were always fighting each other in ethnic struggles that had been going on for hundreds of years. When we met Sarajevans, they were saying that was bullshit. Everyone lived in Sarajevo as Sarajevans. Nobody cared about what ethnicity or religion you were.”

In the process of making the film Winterbottom experienced an awakening much like Nicholson’s. To prepare for the filming and to cull archive footage, he watched hundreds of hours of newsreels. “The more you watch, the more terrible it seems. The more emotionally involved you get seeing it.” But that didn’t desensitize him to what he would discover. “You know what had gone on, but it’s still an incredible shock arriving [in Sarajevo]. On the first day, we drove down Snipers’ Alley and there was all this incredible destruction.”

Even Hollywood star Woody Harrelson, who plays a rogue American journalist, was taken in by the city’s plight. “Woody was incredibly popular. He was great. We’d be trying to film, and suddenly we’d have to sign 50 autographs. He got very involved and went around places and met people and tried to find out about things. I don’t know what ever happened with it, but he was developing a line of hemp clothes in connection with Sarajevo. I think to raise money for the Bosnian Embassy in America.”

Although they arrived just a month and a half after the UN forces had brought about peace, filming in Sarajevo was not as dangerous as you might have imagined. Winterbottom and his crew found it an extremely enjoyable place to work. “We got a lot of cooperation from the people there. It’s a beautiful place. A lot of the people who worked on the film were Croats and Serbs, and none of them cared what the [ethnic] impact was.” Yet though there was no sniper fire to contend with, the production was not without peril. “The only real danger was land mines. We filmed in areas that weren’t cleared, so we had to have mine-removal crews.”

In Winterbottom’s estimation, Sarajevo is now a relatively stable place to live, but one that desperately needs aid. “People feel like things could get better, will get better. The people are very proud of Sarajevo. There is an enormous amount of destruction. What they need is investment from the West to rebuild. During the war people were only thinking about surviving. Now that the war is over, they don’t have jobs or money.”

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